Looking for Bulgakov

James Meek

Read the first of James Meek’s reports from Kyiv here.

I went out to buy a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The White Guard. He was a native of Kyiv, although he later moved to Moscow. He based the book on his experiences of multiple armies – German, Ukrainian nationalist, Bolshevik, Polish – attacking Kyiv at the end of the First World War. It’s a portrait of a bourgeois Russian family, loyal to the tsar and to each other, broken by selfish opportunists and by merciless geopolitical forces so far off and untouchable they seem divine. That much of the book was captured by the play Bulgakov wrote based on it, The Days of the Turbins, a favourite of Stalin’s – perhaps because Stalin liked to think of himself as a divine force, outside good and evil, for whom crushing nice bourgeois families was as natural as breathing. But what the play loses is Kyiv, the way Bulgakov’s prose sacralises the city itself, embedding fictional joys, horrors and disgraces, love, blood and guns, in its actual streets and districts. The layer of myth Bulgakov places over the map of Kyiv, its strange mixture of the adoring and the bitter, and its mood of good people oppressed by mortal danger, was one of the main reasons I became interested in Kyiv in the 1990s. The book isn’t so easy to find here now, although the mood it evokes is present again.

I’m sure you can lay your hands on a copy easily enough in Kyiv if you know where to look; the Russian original is freely available online. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the scale of my efforts – two bookshops and the Bulgakov Museum. But none of them had it. As I left the first shop, a place that sells coffee as well as books, I thought about the naive way I’d read The White Guard, in English, when I came to it: how I’d missed or ignored the patriotic Russian Bulgakov’s ambivalence, bordering on the chauvinist, towards the Ukrainians as a people; how I’d not thought enough about the meaning of the author’s evident sympathies towards the imperial tsarist system and his loathing for the Bolsheviks. The book is wonderful, and clear-eyed about identity, but the world he describes, of imperial Russian cities afloat in a deep, mysterious sea of Ukrainian peasant villages, was radically altered by the 20th century, and the process of urban Ukrainianisation has accelerated since independence. I can understand modern Ukrainians, whatever their preferred language, feeling uneasy at the patriarchal, colonialist undercurrents of The White Guard.

The first shop didn’t have The White Guard in Russian, but why should it? Do Norwegian bookshops only have Danish books in Danish? It didn’t have the Ukrainian version either, but shelf space was tight. It wasn’t as if there was any law against it, and you can hardly say the authorities have taken against the Russian classics: the major thoroughfare the bookshop lies on is called Pushkinska.

I took the metro to Podil, close to the river, to look in another bookshop. The central Kyiv metro is deep. The old escalators take an age to clank down to platform level. I want to say that the great depth of the metro is reassuring, vis à vis air attack, but that possibility still seems fantastical. ‘How,’ my evidently flawed subconscious logic seems to go, ‘could Russia launch missiles against a city with so many nice coffee shops?’ Since I’m talking about my subconscious, I’m trying to work out why the neglectful state of the metro – the old trains, the tatty advertising, the dark, grubby subways leading to the station entrances that haven’t changed much since the 1990s – makes me so uneasy. The explanation, I think, lies in the way Vladimir Putin’s discourse about Ukraine reminds me of an angry ex. If anyone knows of a scene in literature where a woman panics over the state of her living-room in advance of a visit by her violently abusive former husband, let me know.

They didn’t have The White Guard at the Podil bookshop either. It wasn’t in Ukrainian in the ‘foreign literature’ section, which had, among much else, translations of both Jeffrey Archer and Geoffrey Chaucer. Nor was it in Russian among the ‘literature in foreign languages’. It seemed to me they had no Bulgakov, Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, but I was wrong. Anastasia, the manager, told me that they did sometimes have The White Guard in Ukrainian. It was out of stock. She found me a Ukrainian translation of one of the books Bulgakov wrote in Moscow, Heart of a Dog, an anti-Bolshevik satire about a doctor who implants organs from a drunken, brawling criminal into the body of a dog.

At first I took Anastasia, who is 23, for the kind of person I’d imagined existing in the new Ukraine, but had never met – somebody who broke the old assumption that anyone who speaks Ukrainian in Ukraine will also be able to speak fluent Russian. She seemed to be able to speak Ukrainian and English, and not know Russian at all. Gradually it became apparent that, in fact, she did speak Russian, but had made a conscious decision not to. Born and raised in Odessa to parents who spoke, as she put it, ‘surzhik’ – a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian – she went to a Ukrainian-language school, but did also speak Russian. Five years ago, exasperated by Russia’s military intervention in eastern Ukraine and by Russian propaganda, she decided she was going to try to expunge Russian from her mind. She wouldn’t speak it. If somebody spoke to her in Russian, she would answer only in Ukrainian. She would try to think only in Ukrainian. If she read Dostoevsky, it would be in Ukrainian. The only exception she would admit to was for Marina Tsvetaeva.

I walked from Podil up the steep cobbled street where the Bulgakov family used to live. It began to rain heavily. The magic of the Bulgakov name and the prettiness of the street, with its great curve and toy-like church at the top, has drawn money; the picturesqueness is menaced by developers. Bulgakov’s house has become a museum, though shrine might be a better word. It leans more to veneration than interpretation. Inside, furniture that never belonged to the family has been painted white, and almost everything is white. The museum staff had most of Bulgakov’s books, but not The White Guard. They weren’t keen to talk about its relevance to modern Ukraine. They stuck to the tour script.

There was one other visitor on the tour, a young woman, also from Odessa. She’d read The Master And Margarita three times, and found new things in it each time, but had never read The White Guard. I asked her what she thought about Anastasia’s radical decision. ‘I respect it,’ she said. ‘I just haven’t quite got to that point myself yet.’

Read on: ‘On Old Red Army Street’


  • 18 February 2022 at 7:05am
    nlowhim says:
    Thanks for this post as well. Having read Bulgakov's other novels, I'll be adding The White Guard to my reading list. Looking forward to more.

  • 19 February 2022 at 10:51pm
    RobotBoy says:
    The only Bulgakov I'm come across in the States are 'Master' and 'Heart of a Dog' although I do have '67 translation of 'Black Snow', Bulgakov's vicious satire of the MAT and Stanislavski. 'White Guard' is certainly available though. Looks like the 2008 Yale translation might be best.